Some may accuse me of taking the love and romance out of wine by being overly analytical. A recent case perfectly illustrates why I advocate for a more reasoned and tempered approach to wine. When romance blinds us to the truth, only by looking closely and asking hard questions can we see past the deception.
He says he has tasted enough French wines from the 1800s to say the best wines ever made were produced before the devastating phylloxera infestation in the 1860s. “I prefer mature, fully integrated wines,” he says. “You can talk about those bottles for the rest of your life.”
After 140 years in the bottle, these pre-phylloxera wines still taste “fresh” to Kurniawan. The outrageous claim is difficult to challenge. Only a handful of people in the world can say they’ve tasted enough of these wines to argue the point.
It isn’t specified what kind of wine was tasted – I’m aware of dessert wines with incredible cellaring potential due to their high sugar content. But even without having tasted any 140-year-old wines myself I have to be doubtful about how fresh such wines can possibly taste.
The high-end-wine community was bewitched by its newest mystery man. Kurniawan wore clothing that was L.A.-hip and noticeably pricey: selvage jeans, custom Hermès suits, Patek Philippe watches, Chrome Hearts glasses, crocodile boots. He’d flap open his jacket to reveal a silk lining printed with a repeating cursive “Rudy,” or tease someone for having merely a Platinum Amex compared with his own Centurion card. Occasionally, he’d have a woman on his arm, such as a hostess from one of the restaurants he patronized, or be accompanied by a brother visiting from Asia, but usually he arrived alone. He was an hour late to everything, which struck some as a trust-fund slacker’s nonchalance and others as arrogance.
There is a lot of “reckless” spending, says American wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. “These guys have to have it. It’s a sign of status.” Price, he says, is irrelevant to them.
One could argue that status seeking is a form of irrational behaviour. Even in our own lives we may be aware of that one person who splurges on the latest high-end luxury good while leaving the rent unpaid. But I suppose if one does have the money to do so that no longer becomes a question of rationality but morality, which is beyond the scope of this humble blog.
Kapon introduced Kurniawan to an enthusiastic, New York–based circle of new collectors who called themselves the 12 Angry Men, had bombastic nicknames like the Punisher and King Angry, and liked to boast of “bringing the lumber”—opening rare, big-money bottles at their tastings. “It was a Biggus Dickus competition,” an auction-house source recalls. Soon, Kurniawan was visiting New York often, and outdoing them all with the bottles he’d open. Because of his fixations on the 1947 vintage and Romanée-Conti, he acquired his own pair of nicknames: Mr. 47 and Dr. Conti.
The online wine boards are their own community, as volatile in their enthusiasms as the 12 Angry Men but with considerably less net worth. After posting his tasting notes, Kurniawan was declared “a ‘rock star’ of wine tasting” who had made “an incredible display of graciousness” in sharing his notes, which read “like a porn novel.” While a handful of members were more critical, wringing their hands about “excess” and “an offensive display of ‘I am richer than you,’ ” the majority rallied to Kurniawan’s defense. Rob Rosania, an Angry Man known as Big Boy, dismissed a critic with, “You’ve obviously never stepped to his level.” Kapon himself weighed in: “I can safely say that he would NEVER do ANYTHING to brag, boast, or show off.”
At this point it seems to be less about the wine and more about the people. The wine is no longer something to be respectfully appreciated, but a mere tool in a battle of egos where whoever has the most money can buy the best weapons. I can only hope that I will never step down to that level, but like them I am just a man with weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
A Culture Of Falsehoods
At a $17,500-a-head Top 100 Wines of the Century weekend put on by Kapon in October 2005, the wines included two bottles each of DRC Romanée-Conti 1937 and 1945. Doug Barzelay, a New York lawyer and Burgundy collector, and his good friend Meadows, sitting together, kept looking at each other as they sipped the wines. Neither had ever had the ’45. Both wines tasted incorrect to them, and both had been sold to Kapon by Kurniawan. When Meadows stood up to sing for his supper, he quipped of the ’45 DRC that “only 608 bottles of this wine were ever made, but over 10,000 have probably been drunk.” The crowd laughed knowingly. No one faulted Kurniawan, though. Barzelay and Meadows were inclined to ascribe any fakes to statistics: A person buying that much old wine was bound to end up with some phony stuff.
There is likely no other field where sampling false goods could be so cheerily laughed off. More seriously, this signals a kind of tacit approval where such things are tolerated as the norm, which is unfortunate – no deception should be considered acceptable.
The Angry Men were rowdy that night. Their notes on wines they drank during the bidding, as novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney later reported, included “tighter than a 14-year-old virgin” and “stinky like the crack of a 90-year-old nun.” Standing up, Rosania noisily sabered open a $10,000 Jeroboam of 1945 Bollinger. “Shut the fuck up and let’s finish this,” said Kapon, in equally high spirits.
Setting aside the legal questions of how they can rightfully compare anything to a 14-year-old’s virginity, or where they could find a nun who would permit them to sniff her nether regions, using such hyperbolic statements really does not serve much purpose in describing a wine’s expression. Vivid imagery can be useful, but at a certain point it just becomes unnecessary, similar to the fine line that separates erotica from pornography.
In January 2007, Don Stott, a former Wall Street executive and leading Burgundy collector, hosted an event at his home in Summit, New Jersey, to sample those wines with winemaker Christoph Roumier himself, who flew in for the occasion. Barzelay was there, as was Meadows. One guest, a dedicated collector of vinyl LPs who always had a loupe in his pocket, pulled it out and scrutinized one of the bottles. All the details on the label were right, but they were reversed in their positions; the label must have been a high-quality photocopy. When sommelier Tim Kopec tasted a bottle of ’59 Roumier Bonnes-Mares, he said, “I don’t know what this is supposed to be, but this is the best Rhône I’ve had.” Six out of the eleven Kurniawan wines opened were clearly fake, the group agreed.
For those not in the know, the Rhône is best known for its Syrah and Grenache, and have completely different flavour profiles to the Pinot Noir that is cultivated in Burgundy. Fortunately an experienced and rational wine aficionado was on hand to tell the difference.
One witness, wine collector Douglas Barzelay, testified that he became suspicious in 2008 when he viewed an auction catalog that included bottles from Kurniawan’s cellar, purported to be Domaine Ponsot wines from as far back as 1945.
“I wasn’t even aware they existed,” Barzelay said.
He alerted Laurent Ponsot in France, who confirmed they did not. The wine in question was first produced in 1982, Ponsot testified in court.
All it took was one phone call or email to expose a glaring hole in this fantasy world. Maybe it was an act of desperation that drove Kurniawan to commit such an oversight. Or perhaps he had been so used to fooling people he had expected no one to notice. None of this bodes well for any self-described wine “lovers”.
Finally faced with copious, almost pornographically explicit evidence, the wine world has spent the last two months absorbing the implications. Paul Wasserman, who’d gone into business with Kurniawan storing and dealing wine, apologized to Don Cornwell, whom he’d once castigated. Some can’t believe Wasserman didn’t know more than he has let on, but others close to him say he was simply in massive denial. Wasserman agrees: “In retrospect, it seems so dumb to put so much trust there.” Now he wonders whether his family name has been stained, and even how solid the foundation of his old-wine knowledge is. He’d been posting tasting notes on Kurniawan’s wines for years.
This is the final consequence of basing everything on questionable foundations. After being deceived for so long, can you really trust your senses again? One would have to start all over, and time is the one luxury no one can afford to waste.
$75,000 a case? He’s buying – 1 December 2006
Château Sucker – 13 May 2012
Wine dealer accused of fraud that drove up prices worldwide – 18 December 2013
Read more: Rational Wine Experiment – The Vertical Tasting